A Grain Of Saul: Betsy DeVos Needs To Show Up For School Like The Rest Of Us Did

It's not too late for DeVos to redeem herself.

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

On Sunday night, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made a shocking admission on CBS' 60 Minutes: she has not yet "intentionally visited" underperforming public schools in her home state of Michigan. 

The moment immediately sparked an outcry on Twitter and across social media. And rightfully so: how could the woman in charge of running the education system, more than one year into her tenure, not have visited the struggling public schools in her home state that she's been tasked to rescue?

It was a mind-boggling thing to hear not just because DeVos is the Secretary of Education, but because she has spent millions of dollars and close to 30 years creating organizations and lobbying for laws in Michigan that would funnel money typically spent on public schools into private and religious charter schools. But when pressed by 60 Minutes host Lesley Stahl about whether DeVos has explored what's happening at struggling Michigan public schools whose funding was taking a hit because of Devos's initiatives, the below exchange took place.

Stahl: "Have you seen the really bad schools? Maybe try to figure out what they're doing?"

DeVos: "I have not-- I have not-- I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming."

Stahl: "Maybe you should."

DeVos: "Maybe I should. Yes."

In other words, with all that time and money spent on reshaping schools in Michigan, DeVos has apparently never bothered to visit the struggling schools she was so drastically affecting. 

It's not for lack of schools to visit, either. A 2016 report by the Education Trust-Midwest ranked Michigan in the bottom 10 states for key education areas — including, per The Detroit Free Press, early literacy. And it's only getting worse. The charter schools DeVos promoted have not yielded any consistently positive results, and — as Stahl pointed out — defunding already underfunded public schools has had a devastating impact.

For DeVos's critics, of which there are many (she conceded on 60 Minutes to being the "most hated cabinet secretary"), the interview reinforced the most common complaints. 

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 22, 2017: Marchers in National March for Public Education march to Department of Education Building, protesting cuts in federal funds and the expanding private-school vouchers.
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 22, 2017: Marchers in National March for Public Education march to Department of Education Building, protesting cuts in federal funds and the expanding private-school vouchers. Shutterstock / bakdc

Perhaps chief among them is that DeVos — who was raised in a religious, wealthy family, married into an even wealthier family, and never attended public school a day in her life — was out of touch with the needs of most schools across the country. Public schools will educate about 91 percent of all K-12 students in the country by 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Education, while private schools like the high school DeVos attended — whose goal was to "to equip minds and nurture hearts to transform the world for Jesus Christ" — will account for just nine percent of students.

Those same critics will cite the sparse time DeVos has spent around public schools as the reason she struggled with basic education questions during her 60 Minutes interview and, previously, during a tense confirmation hearing in front of the Senate. It's tough not to see their point. DeVos copping to never visiting a struggling public school in Michigan is akin to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson never going abroad or Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson never visiting a public housing project. 

In a word, it's unfathomable. And it's precisely because of her experience in private school that DeVos should be spending as much time in public schools as possible — she's playing catch up on an experience 91 percent of the K-12 students she is responsible for are witnessing firsthand every day.

DeVos has responded to the criticism from her 60 Minutes interview in part by posting a map on Twitter of all the schools she has visited in the last year, a good chunk of which are public schools. She also posted a set of graphs showing stagnant and declining test scores in Michigan, which backfired when Twitter users began pointing out that she has cited her record in Michigan as a qualification for her job as Secretary of Education.

But it's not too late for her to truly redeem herself: If she really wants to cement herself as a champion of education, she should be making weekly visits to struggling public schools across the country. It's the least she could do as Secretary of Education, considering many of the Americans she's supposed to serve have already spent upwards of a decade inside those schools.

Such a commitment wouldn't just help restore her public image, it'd also make her better at her job. DeVos needs to hear from the teachers who can't afford pencils, the school administrators who can't keep the heat on in the winter and the parents wondering how money magically appears to arm teachers in Florida when funding bumps rarely seem available to improve education for kids. She should be sitting down with the West Virginia teacher who had to go on a nine-day strike so she could quit her weekend job as a cashier at a grocery store. She should be shaking hands with the members of the community fighting to desegregate schools in New York City

If DeVos wants to convince the country she's not out to recess on the job, she should commit to showing up for school like the rest of us did.

Cover photo: Shutterstock / a katz

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